‘Silicon Valley’ Actor Matt Ross Hopes to Make a Directorial Splash With ‘Captain Fantastic’

Matt Ross Variety Profile Credit Damon Caserez
Damon Casarez for Variety

When Viggo Mortensen stepped into a Los Angeles coffee shop in 2013 to meet Matt Ross, the writer and director of “Captain  Fantastic,” he didn’t realize he would be seeing someone he recognized. “I think I was told he was an actor as well,” Mortensen recalls. “But I didn’t put two and two together until I saw him and said, ‘Oh, I know you!’ ”

It’s a response to which Ross is accustomed. He’s a character actor who people recognize from countless movies and TV shows, often playing what Mortensen politely refers to as “somewhat nasty kinds of characters.” Ross had small parts in films like “Face/Off,” “American Psycho,” “The Aviator,” and “Good Night, and Good Luck,” before breaking through as the closeted Mormon leader Alby Grant in HBO’s “Big Love.” And he’s enjoying the highest-profile role of his career on HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” as the power-hungry Gavin Belson, a tech CEO as arrogant as he is insecure.

Now, after years of steady work as an actor,  Ross, 46, is looking to make his mark as a serious movie director with “Captain Fantastic,” his second feature film, which Bleecker Street is releasing July 8. His feature debut, 2012’s “28 Hotel Rooms” was inauspicious, opening in just five theaters and grossing less than $20,000.

The new film has been drawing raves. After debuting to a lengthy standing ovation at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “Captain Fantastic” went on to play in Cannes, where it received a similarly positive response, and landed Ross the Un Certain Regard director prize.

On a recent Wednesday, Ross, who is based in Berkeley with his wife, writer Phyllis Grant, and their two children, is seated in the courtyard of his second residence, in Venice — he commutes to L.A. every week — reflecting on the trajectory of his career.

“I’m not a famous actor; I’m a semi-recognizable actor who’s sometimes on a television show,” he muses. “I’ve been writing and directing at the same time I’ve been acting, and it’s a wonderful coincidence that I happen to be on a hit TV show at the same time I have my largest-profile film to date.”

Father Figures: Ross with the cast (right) at the Cannes opening of “Captain Fantastic” Michael Buckner/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

On paper, “Captain Fantastic” is not an easy sell. It tells the story of Ben Cash (Mortensen), a father of six who chooses to live off the grid in the Pacific Northwest. There, he raises his children to grow their own food, read voraciously, and celebrate Noam Chomsky Day instead of Christmas. But he’s not some crazed survivalist; in fact, the film makes a strong case for his style of parenting. When his bipolar wife commits suicide, Ben and his family journey into the outside world to attend her funeral.

Opening amid a wave of sequels and spectacles, the R-rated movie represents classic counterprogramming. “We chose to release in the summer, as there is a long history of audiences looking for an alternative to the summer blockbuster,” explains Andrew Karpen, CEO of Bleecker Street. “We believe playing through July and August will allow moviegoers to find this beautiful, heartfelt film.”

The script has roots in Ross’ own life; he was raised by a single parent — his mother — in “alternative” living situations, including some places without electricity.

“We always had a roof over our head, even if it was a tepee,” he notes. In Oregon, his mother started a Waldorf School, based on the educational philosophy of Austrian theologian Rudolf Steiner.

But Ross hesitates to call “Captain Fantastic” autobiographical. “There are elements of my life, but it has so much less to do with me; it’s more about the kind of father I want to be,” he says. “I was thinking a lot about what it means to be a parent, and what the values are my wife and I want to pass on to our children. I wanted to put that in a narrative form and ask those questions about what it means when you’re responsible for another person and begin to curate their life.”

In casting that curator, Ross saw Mortensen as the perfect fit: a poet and musician who shares much of Ben’s outlook on life. In fact, when Ross sent him several books to prepare for the role, the actor already owned most of them. Mortensen even went to the set weeks early to plant the garden used in the film and live on the land.

“I wanted to ask those questions about what it means when you’re responsible for another person and begin to curate their life.”
Matt Ross

Mortensen — who is earning some of the best notices of his career for the role — says it was the script that drew him in. “It’s told with real heart and integrity,” he explains. “It doesn’t look for an easy way out in how the story unfolds.”

“Captain Fantastic” was filmed in July 2014. Ross would not reveal the budget but notes, “It’s never enough.” That’s particularly true when considering the scope of the project. “We’re shooting in wilderness, so you have locations you have to get up in the middle of the night to get to. We’re a road trip, so every day is a different set. We have two musical numbers, two big stunts, and we’re in two states. So, yeah, it was difficult.”

He cast six actors between the ages of 7 and 20 who had to articulate complicated scientific and philosophical concepts, play musical instruments, and do physically challenging activities like rock climbing. Despite the Hollywood adage that one should never work with kids or animals, Ross opens the film with a scene of the children hunting a deer. (The director keeps the animal’s stuffed stand-in, dubbed Leland, in his Venice loft.)

“Everything in life has to do with the people you choose to collaborate with,” Ross says of the talented young cast. “When you cast kids, you cast their families. And it’s not an accident these are lovely children; they have lovely parents.”

Ross put the actors through a boot camp that included yoga, combat training, music lessons, and even taxidermy. Mortensen loved learning every aspect — with one exception. “The rock climbing wasn’t something I was looking forward to,” he admits. “I sometimes have a fear of heights, and was glad when that day was done.”

Despite the project being “an independent movie with a relatively short schedule,” Mortensen doesn’t recall the shoot being difficult, and he credits the easy vibe to Ross. “Matt did the thing the best directors do, which is give everyone the illusion there was no rush,” he notes. “He was always calm and kind. But it’s not just being nice that gets a movie this complicated made; he’s also very clever.”

Ross says that in the end, “Captain Fantastic” is a movie about family — one seen by his 13-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son, who traveled with him to both Sundance and Cannes.

“In a way this film is aspirational. I wish I was selfless enough to devote my life to my children’s lives, even if the film asks if that is wise,” Ross says. “I used to say that I wanted to make art so girls would like me. And now I want to make art so my children will be proud of me.”